City Officials Won’t Preserve or Demolish the Zoo’s Old Bear House

The city abandoned it in 2017, citing safety concerns.

Oregon Zoo Bear House (Lucas Manfield)
  • ADDRESS: 100 SW Wright Ave.
  • YEAR BUILT: 1926
  • MARKET VALUE: Unknown
  • OWNERS: City of Portland
  • WHY IT’S EMPTY: It’s not structurally sound.

The only building still standing from the original Portland Zoo is its former Bear House, looming above West Burnside Street on the northern edge of Washington Park.

After the zoo was moved to its current location on the southern end of the park in the 1950s, the city used the building to store maintenance equipment. The Tudor shed, built in 1927 and listed on the city’s registry of historic buildings, was once a prime example of “storybook” architecture, complete with engraved stone animals under its steep gables. Its original residents, according to neighbors, were the zoo’s bears. (A city spokesperson couldn’t say for sure.)

In fact, bears were the zoo’s first occupants. The zoo was created in 1888 when a local pharmacist donated a pair, including a female grizzly, to the city. The resulting “bear pit” proved to be such a popular attraction that officials apparently decided to build them a house—complete with roof.

But the decades have taken a toll. The building’s concrete support pillars and stucco wall are “visibly out of plumb,” according to a 2017 inspection report. The city abandoned it that year, citing safety concerns.

It’s now a canvas for graffiti and surrounded by a cyclone fence—which, bemoans one online commenter, has noticeably detracted from its creepiness.

“It’s a disaster,” neighbor Hilary Mackenzie says, summing up the situation. She’s been walking her dogs by the Bear House for 38 years.

Mackenzie would like the city to stabilize the roof and turn it into a picnic shelter. “In a perfect world, this could be a nice, romantic ruin,” she says.

Instead, the city has long planned to replace it with a 2,300-square-foot maintenance facility and parking lot. But that would cost money that perpetually broke Portland Parks & Recreation doesn’t have. A 2018 master plan put the total cost for the new facility at upwards of $2.7 million. In 2020, the city planned to spend $100,000 to demolish it.

That hasn’t happened. A “feasibility study” promised in 2018 to be completed within five years isn’t forthcoming “due to funding constraints,” says parks bureau spokesman Mark Alejos. He couldn’t say when the building was last used.

So, the former Bear House stands empty, an eyesore greeting hikers as they ascend through the Asian rhododendrons, a picturesque section of park known as the “Cloud Forest,” on their way to the Holocaust memorial.

In fact, little progress at all has been made on the 2018 master plan, which included $94 million in projects to be completed in three phases. The first phase, which included the Bear House study, was supposed to be completed within five years.

But it’s not finished and there’s no time frame to do it, Alejos admits.

Kathy Goeddel, president of Friends of Washington Park and Zoo Railway, says that was to be expected. The plan included many “big ideas” but not the money to fund them. “They planned it not to be practical,” she says, “but to be aspirational.”

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